Sunday, January 30, 2011

Yet Another Christian Fake Quote

From recent e-mail from a fundamentalist:

"Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ."
-James Madison, America's Providential History, p. 93.

Now, anyone who knows anything about Madison should be very suspicious of this quote. Madison was not a traditional Christian, and said things like "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect." (letter by Madison to William Bradford, April 1, 1774).

Second, as Chris Rodda has shown, America's Providential History is thoroughly unreliable when it comes to quotations.

Third, this quotation is attributed in Popular Science, February 1887, to John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton University, not Madison. I haven't found it in Witherspoon's writings, but it sounds much more like Witherspoon than Madison. Confusingly, it has also been attributed to Jonathan Dickinson, another of Princeton's presidents. It sounds consistent with him, too.

So I am calling bogus on this quote. Not surprisingly, it is found on many Christian websites, with attributions to Madison. We see here a good example of the fundamentalist devotion to truth.


Anatoly said...

If only it was just religious fundamentalists who show this kind of devotion to truth! Alas, no "camp" is exempt.

When Dawkins, in "The God Delusion", ascribes to Jefferson the quote "The Christian God is a being of a terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust", he's being just as dishonest - if not more, because the meaning of the original phrase is inverted (Jefferson assigned these qualities to the "God of the Jews", and went on to claim that Christ utterly reformed that image). Curiously, when I tracked down this misquotation and posted the evidence in comments at Pharyngula a few years back, the feedback I got from defenders of truth and unmaskers of superstition was mostly trollish abuse.

Similar, as was uncovered in the one useful blogpost that came out of those comments of mine, was Dawkins' treatment of John Adams, when he quoted, egregiously out of context, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.', while Adams' words in context were

"Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell."

This particular misquotation appears to be almost comically dishonest.

Anonymous said...

It's possible Dawkins made an honest error using a secondary source. If he doesn't have a source we don't know about for the Jefferson and Adams quotes, then he should of course retract them. The opinions of the Founding Fathers are more or less irrelevant to Dawkins's argument; indeed, as a rationalist he should be discouraging unthinking acceptance of authority.

The context in which Anatoly says the Adams quote occurs sounds authentic and in a sense corroborates Prof. Shallit's point. The sentence "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it" is suspicious on its face; it sounds more like a theist attacking a straw man than an ingenuous atheist, with its outlandish "best of all possible worlds" parody of Leibniz's theodicy.

Paul said...

The earliest reference I found on Google books to that exact phrase is a speech given in 1844, where it is attributed to Witherspoon. It wouldn't surprise me if all later references are derived from that one. It's worth adding that Witherspoon used the phrase cross of Christ an awful lot in his writing.

Catherine said...

Go figure:

"survey of 926 representative high school biology teachers found that only 28 percent of them consistently follow National Research Council guidelines that encourage them to present students with evidence of evolution."

sbh said...

As far as the out-of-context John Adams quotation is concerned, it was Thomas Jefferson who was originally responsible for that. He quoted it partially in his reply to Adams (who of course knew perfectly well what he had written) in order to comment on it. It happens that Jefferson's letter was printed first, and until Adams' letter was printed as well all that was known of the passage was the bit Jefferson had quoted, and that bit has been quoted and requoted ever since--at least by people who didn't check it against the original.

The Madison misattribution probably results likewise from human error (and failure to check sources). William J. Federer wrote in the Madison section of his America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (p. 410):

"Home-schooled as a child, Madison attended Princeton University under the direction of Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the nation's premier theologians and legal scholars. The University's first president, Jonathan Dickinson, had declared: 'Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.'"

Somebody seeing this sentence in quotation marks in a section devoted to Madison quotations could easily be excused for mistaking it for Madison's words.

I have yet to run the original quotation to its lair either in Dickinson's or Witherspoon's own works, which is why I have yet to feature it at my own Fake History weblog [/shameless self-promotion].

sbh said...

The quotation does indeed appear to have been taken from Witherspoon; his sermon "Glorying in the Cross" contains the following passage:

"Mistake me not, my brethren: I am not speaking against learning in itself; it is a precious gift of God, and may be happily improved in the service of the gospel; but I will venture to say, in the spirit of the apostle Paul's writings in general, and of this passage in particular, Accursed be all that learning which sets itself in opposition to the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning which disguises or is ashamed of the cross of Christ! Accursed be all that learning which fills the room that is due to the cross of Christ! and once more, Accursed be all that learning which is not made subservient to the honour and glory of the cross of Christ!"

It's a misquotation, apparently, taken in this form from an 1845 speech. It's not self-evident whether the speaker misquoted Witherspoon, or whether the reporter misquoted the speaker.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Good job, sbh! My congratulations.